Monday, May 25, 2015

Engleish, our Engleish

I found a fascinating little grammar book at our local library called, 'Engleish, our Engleish: Common errors in South African English and how to resolve them' (The title has a little joke within it - 'eish' is used to express disbelief, surprise or exasperation.)

Apart from being a general English grammar reference book, there are a few very interesting chapters:

  • No 'Afringlish', please, we're British
  • English as influenced by speakers of our indigenous African tongues
  • 'Pickle fish' and 'corn beef'; our past participles are getting the chop
As I've mentioned on my blog a few times, South Africa has 11 national languages and probably South African Sign Language is the unofficial 12th language. Officially everything (road signs, government publications etc.) is supposed to be made available in all 11 languages. But from what I can see and experience there is still much power being abused through language use (or disuse). In the Western Cape everything is available in English, lots of things in Afrikaans and some things in Xhosa. In other areas languages like Zulu are more prominent. Generally though, English is the language that wields the most power.

The book is an insight into the need and desire that so many South Africans have to use English well. But of course the beauty of South African English lies in its depth and richness from influences from languages like Afrikaans and other African languages.

Given that we have lived here for nearly four years it's natural that we've picked up quite a few South African English vocabulary items and use them everyday. We regularly say, 'Ja', 'Izzit', 'Howzit' and 'must' instead of 'should'. But what I didn't realise was that we had also picked up a few other things like saying, 'stay' instead of 'live' (e.g. 'I stay in Muizenberg.') and, 'to come with' rather than 'to come along' (e.g. 'Please come with'). I get frustrated when I make silly copula mistakes and say things like, 'You is...' In Afrikaans there are different rules regarding subject/verb agreement and strangely this has carried over when talking to Shiri at times. I suppose it's not because I have learnt much Afrikaans (I haven't!) but because she is still working out singular/plural agreement and I hear it being misused nearly every day by people whose first language is Afrikaans.

(This excerpt from a radio show has examples of a few funny Afrikaans influences on English. The example, 'I is wearing a jean pant' is not beyond the realm of possibility when speaking to an Afrikaner!)

At George Whitefield College all teaching is done in English and this can be quite frustrating for students and also for the faculty as they try to translate students' essays and exams come marking time. It can be hard to determine the difference between a student not understanding the material or just not being able to express themselves clearly in English. But one thing I never tire of is listening to all the different accents and picking up why and how English is pronounced depending on the students' linguistic backgrounds. Often syllable stress is just a little off which can make a word completely nonsensical but other times it just sounds so African! Syllable stress is different in other languages and are usually more predictable e.g. in most Bantu languages the penultimate syllable is pronounced. Some examples that you might hear around our neighbourhood:

'circumstances' rather than 'circumstances' or 'deficit' rather than 'deficit'

I loved reading this list from page 28. I could hear the differences in my head and I literally smiled.

'Elongating conventionally short vowel sounds involving making -e, -i, -ea, -ie, -ee, and shortening conventionally long vowel sounds in English, which affects meaning:

Elongation of short vowel                               
Shortening of long vowel
fan fern markets mukits
fed fared assert asset
descent decend cheap chip
bit beat, beet scream scrim
bidding beading feedback fiedbeck
dip deep sheet shit
hit heat heel hill
sit seat weakened weekend
hut heart bird bed
burger beggar
burned banned
buyers bias
court caught, cot

Reflecting on my language use, what I hear around me and what my children are producing is a confusing activity. Will my children think my English is fossilized (that is, my English is will represent Australian English in 2011 and won't develop any further) and will my attempts at South African English sound out of place to them (like my Filipino mum saying 'G'day, mate')? What will happen to South African English as more and more people who have English as their second or third language come into positions of power and influence in society and politics? Will I always be able to hear the differences between South African English and Australian English or are they starting to meld together? Today I was asked if maybe I was from another country since I had a 'slight accent'. 'Slight'??!!! 

Tuesday, April 21, 2015


(Photo by Ntokozo Mbambo.)

Something I read on a local Facebook group:

Hello moms, last night around 1900h l had my worst nightmare in my life. As I was fetching water from the tap outside my room, some guy came to me and threatened to kill me if I was to fail to tell him what the elbow is in xhosa pointing at it and pretending to cut his neck to show me he was going to kill me. Puzzled I responded in Ndebele as its called the same. Funny the landlord says to me I cant stop them.

There has been a huge wave of xenophobic attacks in South Africa on 'foreigners' - people from neighbouring countries like Zimbabwe or Mozambique who have moved to South Africa in search of employment opportunities. There has been a lot of discussions in the media about why these attacks are happening right now but the idea that keeps popping up is resentment over employment. There is a very big unemployment problem in South Africa (perhaps something like one in four people are unemployed) and yet large swathes of people who are able to find employment are foreigners. 

These attacks have been violent. Horrifically so. I've read about a man being burnt alive after being beaten and run over by a car. Mobs of angry people roam the streets looking for stereotypical foreigners to harass i.e. a domestic worker or gardeners. Surprisingly to me domestic workers or gardeners are more often than not from Zimbabwe or Malawi or other African countries rather than being South African born. 

I began the post with the quote from a Zimbabwean living in Cape Town. The woman was tested to see if she was a South African or not. How? By testing her linguistic skills. The gangster/criminal/xenophobic racist asked her how to say 'elbow' in Xhosa. I'm not sure if the man spoke to her in English or Xhosa as it's not clear to me from her story. He threatened to kill her if she was unable to tell him the correct answer. She responded in another language, Ndebele, but she knew that 'elbow' is the same word in Xhosa and Ndebele (elbow = indololwane). 

The man was trying to find out the woman's identity through her linguistic abilities. This backfired on him since she was skilled enough in Xhosa (a language mostly spoken in the Western and Eastern Cape) and in her own Zimbabwean language, Ndebele, so she was able to fool him into thinking she wasn't a foreigner. 

(The situation reminds me of the Shibboleth/Sibboleth story in the book of Judges chapter 12.) 

Who is in and who is out? Who is acceptable and who is not? Who belongs and is welcome in South Africa and who is not? 

Using language as a measuring stick is a fascinating thing. There are 11 national languages in South Africa and I believe most people are multilingual and actually, the majority of the population would be at least trilingual. So testing someone's identity through what language they can speak is quite a tricky thing to do. Obviously the thug thought he could intimidate the woman but what a strange way since the language of many foreigners (Ndebele spoken in Zimbabwe) has many loan words with Xhosa (the language of many locals in this area). He could have at least chosen a word that is not the same in both languages! 


Once when I was on the banks of our local waterway ('vlei' in Afrikaans which translates to 'swamp' but it's a freshwater estuary) a man came up to Shiri and me and spoke to me in Xhosa. He said, 'Kunjani, sisi? ('How are you, sister?'). I was a bit concerned. I was alone except for my baby. The vlei is quite full of criminal activities at times. And culturally there was absolutely no need for him to greet me like that. If anything he should have spoken to me in Afrikaans or English. I replied, 'Ndiphilile.' (I'm well.) And then he left. It was a very odd encounter. I expected him to ask me for something - directions, food, money, the time, anything. But he didn't. Later I wondered if he was testing me for my own identity - could I respond with the right words? Did I belong here in South Africa? I may have been overthinking the situation but it was very odd anyway. 

Friday, February 13, 2015

Funny in Any Language

I recently watched two YouTube videos that made me laugh. Both made me laugh. One made me laugh with nostalgia and made me miss Australia. And the other made me laugh because I am finally beginning to sympathise with something of the South African mindset.

The first video is from an Australian webseries called, 'The Katering Show'. I found it utterly hilarious and at the same time it made me quite homesick. The direct, harsh and cutting humour is something that just doesn't happen here in South Africa. The Australian teasing, merciless teasing, just doesn't translate very well in other cultures. We make fun because we love the other person. I miss the camaraderie that engenders this kind of humour.

The second video is from a well-known and loved South African comedian. When we first arrived, almost four years ago, I tried to watch some South African comedians but didn't understand a single thing - not their language or what or earth they found was funny. But now I'm starting to see, understand and appreciate South Africa's particular brand of humour. I think people laugh together at something when they have experienced it themselves and comedians capitalise on those shared experiences. Appreciating humour in other cultures seems to happen only when you have lived long enough in another culture to see things through someone else's eyes. It's not about an Australian laughing at South Africans but South Africans laughing at themselves.